From Editor-in-Chief 

In societies like ours, which are constantly plagued by problems, elections are supposed to be seen as fresh starts that generate optimistic expectations for the future. Unfortunately, last month Turkey held another general election, the outcome of which did not inspire much hope. While the ruling People’s Alliance had already secured a majority in the legislature during the first round of voting on May 14th, the second round of the presidential election took place on May 28th and was won by Tayyip Erdoğan, the candidate of the same Alliance, for the “third time” (!). The phrase “for the third time,” which I felt compelled to emphasize with an exclamation mark, adequately signifies the peculiarity of the situation: A person who can constitutionally be elected president “at most twice” has now been elected to this office for the third time!

This holds symbolic significance for the current regime in Turkey. The dual elections held in May 2023 posed significant challenges, both in terms of universal democratic standards and Turkey’s constitutional order. European institutions have indeed confirmed that these elections did not occur under conditions of fair competition between the government and the opposition. The current regime, characterized by some as “post-fascism,” has shown a disregard for liberal-democratic principles, and the elections merely served to legitimize the political status quo without truly upholding democratic values.

Meanwhile, it is not possible to achieve miraculous economic results by simply placing a certain individual in charge of economic administration. Like in all public domains, the crucial aspect here is addressing and rectifying the institutional damage incurred in recent years. Even if there were a sudden transformation in the mindset of the current political team, leading them to formulate and implement appropriate policies across all sectors, it would still be challenging to extricate the country from its current predicament and restore politics, law, and the economy to a favorable trajectory, especially in the short term.

It appears that the hopes of Turkish society for freedom, justice, peace, and prosperity will once again be dashed. In summary, Turkey is facing challenging months and even years ahead.

Until the next edition of the Freedom Bulletin, let us hope to meet under more optimistic circumstances.

* Prof. Dr. Mustafa Erdoğan

What Did the 2023 Elections Show Us?

On May 14-28, 2023, Turkey held two pivotal elections that would determine the fate of the presidential government system and Turkish democracy. The ruling People’s Alliance faced competition from the opposition Nation’s Alliance and the Labor and Freedom Alliance. In the presidential election, the Labor and Freedom Alliance did not field its own candidate but instead supported the Nation’s Alliance candidate, Kemal Kılıçtaroğlu. Ultimately, the People’s Alliance emerged as the victor in both the parliamentary and presidential elections, which were constitutionally mandated to be held concurrently.

These elections highlighted the challenges the opposition faces in electoral authoritarian systems. Considering that the opposition not only competes against the opposing political party or candidate but also against the entire state apparatus, it is difficult to claim that the elections were conducted fairly. Particularly when the judiciary has been transformed into a tool of power, it can be likened to the opposition having to not only defeat their opponent but also the referee. Throughout this election process, the judiciary did not hesitate to favor the government, evident through actions such as threatening a political ban on a prominent opposition presidential candidate, filing a party closure case against a party expected to have a significant role in the elections, ongoing court proceedings, as well as investigations and prosecutions targeting the opposition.

On the other hand, the Supreme Electoral Council undeniably provided the government with an advantage through decisions that violated the Constitution, such as allowing the President to run for a third term and permitting ministers and the Vice President to run for parliament without resigning. The fairness of the election was further compromised by the investigative and prosecutorial authorities, who exhibited leniency towards the government during the campaign but took an aggressive stance against the opposition. While no investigations were initiated into the government’s blatant disinformation, those who voiced concerns regarding irregularities or corruption were swiftly silenced by the judiciary.

The fairness of the election was not solely influenced by the judiciary’s approach. There were no mechanisms in place to prevent the utilization of state resources for direct election propaganda, which was extensively employed. The state broadcaster TRT was overtly transformed into a government propaganda tool, while RTÜK announced investigations against opposition TV channels that aired on election night. The majority of media outlets, which are controlled by the government (accounting for over 95% of the total media), function as one-sided propaganda machines. The opposition was portrayed as colluding with terrorist organizations. Voters, particularly in rural areas with limited access to social media, were highly exposed to this biased propaganda. Additionally, it is well-known that the government allocated significant funds for targeted social media advertisements aimed at specific groups. Consequently, it is difficult to assert that the elections were conducted on equal terms and in a fair manner.

Despite these challenges, it is not impossible for the opposition to win the elections. The current conditions in the country have created a strong demand for change in society. The government’s social support has been significantly weakened due to factors such as economic downturn, foreign policy failures, injustices, inequalities, incompetent leadership, corruption, and inefficient public services.

The opposition stands a chance of success if it can present a compelling alternative to the government and effectively engage with voters. However, it is important to acknowledge that the opposition parties face certain disadvantages in this regard compared to the ruling alliance. While the ruling party can appeal to a homogenous mass with a nationalist conservative identity, the opposition must appeal to diverse identity groups that may be difficult to unite. In other words, the opposition needs to bring together secularists, Kemalists, nationalists, Turkish nationalists, various leftist groups, liberals, disenchanted conservatives, nationalist Kurds, conservative Kurds, and other social minorities, and consolidate their power towards a common goal.

The only way to achieve this was by removing identity from being a political problem. It required presenting and consistently defending a democratization program that respects everyone’s identity, accepts individuals as they are, but does not target any identity group for political gain. This approach involved inviting political parties representing diverse identity groups to cooperate through open and transparent processes, and ensuring that the agreed program is communicated to their party members and voter bases.

However, this alone was not sufficient. It was crucial to present a political program that included rational public policies addressing the country’s current issues, along with detailed budgets, timelines, and competent staff to implement them. While the formation of the “Table of Six” was a positive step in this direction, the participating parties could not fully assure the public of their commitment to stable democratization. They struggled to break free from the identity-based discourse of the government and relied on eclectic rhetoric. Moreover, the lack of transparency in the candidate selection process, the delayed announcement of candidates, and the perception of predetermined outcomes undermined public confidence.

In the parliamentary elections, the absence of well-designed cooperation models also affected the opposition’s results. However, if the CHP and the IYI Party had formed a single electoral list, while the other four parties of the Nation’s Alliance had run separately, and if the TİP and YSP had formed a joint list, the distribution of seats in the parliament could have been more favorable to the opposition.

Lastly, there is no excuse for the opposition’s failure to protect the integrity of the ballot boxes and establish reliable software and system to monitor election results.

* Ali Rıza Çoban – Constitutional Lawyer

RTÜK has initiated an investigation against six channels

On May 28th, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) initiated an investigation into six channels for their non-compliance with the broadcasting bans imposed by the Supreme Election Council (YSK) during the presidential runoff. It is interesting to note that these channels (HALK TV, TELE 1, KRT, TV4, Flash Haber, and SZC TV) share a common broadcasting policy that opposes the government. In the RTÜK announcement, it was reported that the statement made by Çiğdem Toker, a programmer at FOX TV, saying “Democracy does not consist of the ballot box,” is under review by the board. The Supreme Council will decide on this matter once the report is finalized.

Furthermore, the announcement mentioned that complaints from viewers have been received regarding speeches that aim to demean our honorable nation with insults and attacks following the opening of the polls and the announcement of results. These complaints are also being examined.

In response to the investigation, RTÜK President Ebubekir Şahin stated, “We will not stay silent in the face of these attitudes that disrespect the national will, democracy, and election results, and insult our people while attempting to humiliate our beloved nation.” He hinted at the possibility of imposing fines on opposition channels.

Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that Çiğdem Toker’s statement, “democracy does not consist of the ballot box,” which prompted an investigation by RTÜK, is not problematic. Political science and democratic theory have extensively discussed and defended this viewpoint. The phrase “democracy does not consist of the ballot box” implies that elections alone are not sufficient to establish a democratic political system. While elections are a necessary component, a truly democratic system also upholds individual rights and freedoms through constitutional protections, independent of the majority’s will. This comprehensive understanding of democracy, often referred to as liberal democracy, emphasizes the importance of pluralism. Therefore, interpreting this statement as advocating for non-electoral means to determine or remove a government, or as endorsing a coup d’état, reflects either a limited understanding or malicious intent on the part of those who do so.

RTÜK’s investigation into opposition channels does not come as a surprise. It has been evident for many years that both the Chairman of the Board and the Board’s decisions have been driven by a clear intention to penalize opposition media outlets whenever possible. However, it is crucial to recognize that this attempt to punish opposition channels under the pretense of “protecting democracy (!)” is tragically detrimental to democracy itself.

Democracy is not solely about the expression of “national will.” It encompasses a wide range of liberal-democratic values, including free and fair electoral competition, civil liberties such as freedom of expression, press freedom, and association, as well as the rule of law, checks and balances, and judicial independence. Disregarding these fundamental principles leads to the dominance of the majority, where the democratic system transforms into a zero-sum game where the winner takes all and the loser loses everything.

The supposed motive of “protecting democracy” behind the targeting of opposition media outlets is deeply concerning, as it undermines the very essence of democracy. Instead of fostering a healthy democratic environment that embraces diverse perspectives and encourages robust debate, such actions contribute to the erosion of democratic values and the concentration of power. It is crucial to uphold the principles of democracy, including the protection of freedom of the press and the independence of media outlets, to ensure a vibrant and pluralistic democratic society.

Ömer Faruk Şen – Ph.D. – Missouri University

On the verge of economical discharge: Comeback era of M. Şimşek

Turkey re-elected President Erdoğan in the May 28th election, marking an intriguing experience for the country. The opposition politicians and citizens were confident in their potential victory, particularly in the first round. In the 2019 municipal elections, the Millet Alliance, led by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Iyi Parti (İYİP), supported by the Democratic Party (DP) and the Felicity Party (SP), successfully won municipalities from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in major cities like Istanbul, Ankara, Adana, Mersin, and Antalya. This triumph served as a significant motivation for Erdoğan’s opponents.

Additionally, President Erdoğan exerted considerable effort to repeat the local elections in Istanbul, and in the subsequent election, the CHP candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu further increased his vote share and assumed the position of Istanbul’s mayor. This outcome demonstrated the opposition’s notable success under the umbrella of an alliance. Naturally, Erdoğan’s opponents entered the general election under the Millet Alliance, leveraging the strength gained from the 2019 elections. However, the alliance system that proved effective in the local elections did not yield the same outcome in the general elections, resulting in Erdoğan securing his third term as the President of the Republic of Turkey.

On the contrary, Erdoğan now faces a more challenging test: the economy. Despite presenting an electoral economic plan and making certain economic promises such as reducing unemployment, achieving a growth rate of 5.5%, raising the national income per capita to $16,000, and constructing favorable housing for earthquake victims, Erdoğan did not place significant emphasis on economic promises during his pre-election propaganda. While articles were written and leaflets were prepared on these matters, economic developments were not the focal point of Erdoğan’s rallies or television programs. Instead, he primarily focused on accusing the opposition alliance of supporting terrorism. It remains uncertain whether this discourse resonated with the public, but it is evident that this was the primary issue Erdoğan emphasized throughout the campaign.

While inflation and the devaluation of the Turkish lira are the most pressing issues in Turkey, the lack of emphasis on the economy Erdogan during the election process has raised concerns among economists. As mentioned in previous bulletins, the Turkish economy is grappling with high inflation, a depreciating currency, and a significant current account deficit. The proposed “Turkey Economy Model” and “Liraization” strategy, aimed at addressing these problems, have largely depleted the reserves of the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey (CBRT), raising doubts about whether Erdogan will reconsider this model after the elections.

Although the economy was not the central focus of Erdogan’s campaign, discussions surrounding how to revive the economy and who would be entrusted with its management have dominated the post-election discourse. In this regard, the name Mehmet Simsek has emerged as a prominent figure. Before the elections, Erdogan held several meetings with Mehmet Simsek, and it was even announced to the press that these meetings were taking place. However, no significant developments on this matter were observed at that time.

Mehmet Şimşek is widely recognized in the Western capital as a successful finance minister, particularly during the period when the Turkish economy was highly regarded in Europe. Together with Ali Babacan, he managed the Turkish economy during a time of prosperity. Simsek was named the finance minister of the year by Emerging Markets magazine in 2013 and was recognized as one of the 500 most influential people in the world by Foreign Policy magazine in the same year. However, the Turkish economy took a different direction with significant changes, particularly under Berat Albayrak, who is Erdogan’s son-in-law.

It appears that Erdogan intends to reappoint Mehmet Şimşek to oversee the economy in an attempt to return to the successful past. However, at the same time, Erdogan seems determined to maintain his belief that “interest rates are the cause of inflation.” It remains uncertain whether there will be a return to orthodox economic policies or if a middle ground can be reached between Simsek and Erdogan. Only time will reveal whether Simsek’s economic understanding and Erdogan’s perspective on interest rates can work harmoniously.

Enes Özkan – Economist, Istanbul University

Sonraki İçerikFreedom Observer No: 39